Of all the volcanoes in the northern Cascades, Mt. St. Helens is by far the easiest to climb. For starters, the most common route, Monitor Ridge on the south flank, is non-technical, eliminating the need for specialized gear or advanced mountaineering skills. At just 8,366 feet, its summit elevation post-1980 eruption places it several thousand feet lower than neighbors such as Mt. Adams, Mt. Baker, and Mt. Rainier, essentially taking the ill effects of altitude out of the equation. However, at 10 miles round trip and with about 5,000 feet of elevation gain, it’s still a robust day hike.
After numerous trips to the base of Mt. St. Helens over the years, reaching the summit of this active volcano has long been on my to-do list. When we moved back to Washington last summer, I knew I might finally get my chance. The Gifford Pinchot National Forest limits the number of climbers to 100 per day in the summer months, and the permits sell out quickly when they go on sale in March. Sadly, I missed the initial sale this year, leaving me to obsessively check every few days for cancellations. Eventually I got lucky and spotted two permits up for grabs in late-July. A few minutes later, they were mine.
From a distance and elevation gain standpoint, the hike up Monitor Ridge is comparable to many of Colorado’s famous “Fourteeners”. One major difference: on Mt. St. Helens we would be topping out at a lower elevation than one starts most Fourteener climbs at. The other big difference would be the terrain. Most Fourteeners have a fairly distinct path a good way up the mountain and are on reasonably solid rock (my dislike of exposure and falling means I haven’t done any of the ones on rotten rock). On Mt. St. Helens, after a brief foray through the forest, the climb traverses a mixture of large lava boulders and a loose scree consisting of pumice and volcanic ash. This is a hike where a mask was on the suggested gear list before they were cool!
To the hike! As the National Weather Service had accurately predicted several days in advance, the morning of our climb dawned with some fairly dense fog at the Climbers Bivouac trailhead where we had camped the previous night. We hit the trail at 6:00 am, anticipating that it would take us 4-5 hours to reach the summit. The first two miles of trail climbs gently through a moist and somewhat unremarkable second growth forest. At timberline is where the route changes from a well-maintained trail to the aforementioned scree and boulder scramble. Wooden posts serve as guides for the remainder of the climb, but following them too closely didn’t always make for the most sensible route. In places there is a fairly obvious path, while in others (particularly in the boulder fields), you just sort of have to find what works best. Just before arriving at timberline, we began to emerge from the clouds, revealing views of Mt. Adams to the east and the extremely conical Mt. Hood to the south that we enjoyed the rest of the day. Once above the trees, our pace slowed significantly, but before too long we were several hundred feet above the cloud deck we had been immersed in a short time earlier:
We made fairly good time through the ~2 miles of boulder fields. The final mile through a deep and loose mixture of volcanic ash and pumice was definitely the most challenging part of the hike. With masks on to prevent inhaling clouds of ash kicked up by our feet (and the wind), it was somewhat analogous to hiking up a sand dune: two steps forward, one step back, repeat. After about four hours, we were standing on the crater rim.
The first view northward into the bowels of Mt. St. Helens was stunning, and definitely one of the most dramatic viewpoints I can recall. Unlike many lesser peaks in the Cascades, or most peaks in the Rockies, where you are often surrounded by other peaks of comparable elevation, Mt. St. Helens stands alone. On this volcano, you are standing on what is, by far, the highest point for dozens of miles in any direction, with only the other volcanoes exceeding you in height. Looking down onto the crater formed by the 1980 eruption, the lava domes that are slowly rebuilding the summit, and the Crater Glacier (one of the few alpine glaciers in the world that is actually advancing) was spectacular. Cornices of hard-packed, dirty snow clung to the nearly vertical slopes of the crater walls just beneath our feet, necessitating caution as we moved our way along the rim. Gentle puffs of steam were visible on portions of the lava dome, a gentle reminder that we were standing at the summit of one of the most active volcanoes in the world. The dull roar of rock and ice fall from the crater walls was nearly constant for the hour we spent taking in the view from the summit.
While the hike up had been relatively uneventful, the journey down was definitely less pleasant. Hiking poles are a must for the descent due to the steep, loose, and rocky terrain. This is definitely one of those hikes where coming down is exponentially more difficult than going up!
Compared to our experience hiking Fourteeners in Colorado, the significantly lower elevation of this hike makes a huge difference and in my opinion dramatically lowers the overall difficultly of this route. There is a big difference between inching your way up a scree slope at 13,000′ and having to stop every few steps to take in oxygen, and doing the same at 8,000′ where breathing isn’t as much of an issue. While the terrain was definitely more difficult than your average hike with similar specs, in the end we felt like the difficulty of the Monitor Ridge route was somewhat over-hyped based on some of the accounts we read in advance. We wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. As far as special gear, a mask was definitely helpful for both COVID and volcanic ash purposes. Hiking poles were more or less useless on the way up, as the boulder fields often required the use of hands to navigate, but essential on the way down. Other sources recommended bringing garden gloves to protect against cuts on the sharp volcanic rocks. We bought some cheap ones and definitely found them useful. I never actually put mine on during the ascent, and made it to the summit with only one small abrasion on the back of my hand. Long pants are also a must if you don’t want your lower legs ripped to shreds by the rocks.
With Mt. St. Helens checked off, next up on the to-do list is Mt. Adams, which is also a non-technical climb at the right time of year, albeit longer. We may not get to that one this summer…perhaps our goal will be to climb one Cascade volcano per year!
The last destination on our Alaskan journey was the Kenai Peninsula and the town of Seward. After a few days respite from the wildfire smoke in Wrangell-St. Elias, it returned with a vengeance as we headed back to Anchorage and down to the the coast:
After baking in the heat of the Alaskan interior for the last week, the marine climate of Seward was a welcome change. We even had a bit of rain for one of the few times in our entire trip.
While temperatures in Seward we’re somewhat more mild, the coastal location meant the humidity was not. On our first day in Seward, we partook in a brutal hike up to the Harding Icefield in Kenai Fjords National Park. The hike itself was not abnormally difficult, but we were definitely not used to the combination of heat and humidity, leaving me feeling physically ill at several points during the slog up the mountain. The day had started off overcast, but as we climbed, the clouds evaporated leaving us with stellar views of the rapidly retreating Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield from which it originates. An icefield is essentially a large mass of interconnecting glaciers. The Harding Icefield is the largest — and one of only four — remaining icefields in the United States. The Exit Glacier itself has retreated more than a mile in the last 200 years, leaving trees and other vegetation to begin re-occupying it’s former valley.
The white and blue ice of the glacier made for a stellar contrast with the lush green vegetation of the alpine zone:
The wet climate of coastal Alaska results in extremely heavy snowfalls, making this one of only a handful of places in the world where glaciers flow all the way down to sea level to meet the ocean. Known as tidewater glaciers, these glaciers exhibit complex patterns of advance and retreat that, unlike standard alpine glaciers, are not purely the result of variations in climate. While warmer temperatures or prolonged drought can certainly reduce their mass, the movement of tidewater glaciers is also subject to complex interactions between the ice, the geomtery of the ocean floor, and the depth of the water into which they flow.
On our second day in Seward, we took a water taxi into the heart of Kenai Fjords National Park and then kayaked to within about a quarter mile of the terminus of Holgate Glacier. Tidewater glaciers have a tendency to “calve”, in which large chunks of ice break off the glacier and fall into the ocean, necessitating a safe distance. Glacier “social distancing” if you will. It is not hard to find videos on YouTube of people getting too close to calving tidewater glaciers, with quite predictable results. From our safe distance, we observed and heard several calving events in the few hours we were kayaking around the bay, but unfortunately I was not adept enough at kayaking into position quickly enough to actually capture one on camera.
Our boat ride back to Seward through Resurrection Bay also resulted in sightings of sea lions, seals, puffins, and even two pods of orcas: an exciting end to the trip!
The second stop on our Alaska trip of 2019 was Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. The largest national park in the United States, Wrangell-St. Elias spans more than 13 million acres in the wilderness of southeast Alaska. Our destination was the old mining town of Kennecott, situated deep in the park’s interior between the volcanic Wrangell Mountains and the coastal St. Elias Range.
Due to the tire issues mentioned in my last post, we opted not to take our Subaru down the 60-mile long McCarthy Road, the main access route into the park. In hindsight, we probably would have been fine, as the road was in excellent condition (at least relative to the roads we’d been used to driving in Utah. The similar-in-length Hole in the Rock Road makes the McCarthy Road look like a recently-paved superhighway). Fortunately, we were able to book a last minute van shuttle from Kenny Lake, AK to the end of the McCarthy Road. Regardless of your mode of transportation, you then walk across a footbridge spanning the glacial silt-laden Kennicott River into the town of McCarthy. (The only vehicle access to McCarthy is via a private, and very expensive, bridge a bit further downstream.) Kennecott is another 5 uphill miles by shuttle, bike, or foot:
Strangely, reaching Kennecott would have been much easier in 1919 than it was in 2019. The McCarthy “Road” is actually an old railroad grade originally built in 1909 to bring supplies in and ore out of the famous Kennecott Copper Mines. From 1911 through the late 1930s, the Kennecott mines shipped millions of tons of copper ore to Cordova on the Alaska coast via the Copper River and Northwestern Railway. The town had state of the art amenities at the time, including one of the best hospitals in the territory as well as the first X-ray machine in Alaska. While the mines closed in 1938, Kennecott Copper remains one of the larger copper-producing companies in the world, perhaps best known for the massive Bingham Canyon Mine just outside of Salt Lake City.
Following the closure of the mines, Kennecott lay mostly deserted for decades before beginning to draw tourists in the 1980s. Much of the land and buildings within the town were acquired by the National Park Service in 1998 and added to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Restoration and stabilization of historic buildings in Kennecott is ongoing. Today, you can actually explore many of these buildings, including the town power plant (photo below) and the massive concentration mill (photo above), a 14-story wooden structure where copper ore was crushed and then mechanically and chemically concentrated into the high grade ore that was eventually shipped out via the railroad.
History aside, the natural landscape of Kennecott is really what makes it stand out as one of the most stunning places I’ve ever visited. The town is perched on the flanks of Bonanza Ridge, with rocky peaks towering more than 4,000 feet above and what remains of the Kennicott Glacier below. At first glance, it is not apparent (even to a geologist) that the mounds of rubble in the valley below ARE a glacier, but ice does lay beneath the veneer of debris. Like most of the world’s alpine glaciers, the Kennicott Glacier has retreated dramatically since the town’s heyday in the early 1900s, when its surface was level with or even above the elevation of the town. Today, you look down several hundred feet on to what remains of the glacier and the detritus it has brought with it out of the mountains. The origin of the glacier, and the dominant feature of the northern skyline, is the massive Mt. Blackburn, the fifth highest peak on the United States at 16,391 feet:
A few miles north of Kennecott, the Kennecott Glacier is joined by the Root Glacier, a somewhat more “normal” looking glacier that we spent nearly an entire day exploring. The experience was rather surreal given that the air temperature was nearly 90 degrees. Climates amenable to the formation of glaciers don’t often produce days where a swim in the frigid glacial melt water actually sounds appealing as opposed to horrifying, but that was certainly the case on this day.
As spectacular as the glacier was, there is something quite unsettling about walking around on one in a T-shirt. The signs and symptoms of a warming climate were all encompassing. We walked along deep gouges (surprisingly reminiscent of Utah slot canyons) carved into the ice by strong currents of melt water…
encountered many sublime pools filled with deep, electric blue pools of glacial melt water…
and carefully avoided deep shafts, known as moulins, that carry cascades of melt water into the internal plumbing of the glacier. In many places, we could hear the dull roar of the melt water boring tunnels through the ice beneath our feet. Glaciers like Root won’t survive many more summers with too many days like this one.
Despite the best efforts of the interpretive signs displaying historical photographs, and the park film showing the sights and sounds of the past, the sheer remoteness of Kennecott in 2019 makes it difficult to imagine the Kennecott of 1919: a busy town immersed in the deafening roar of copper mining, with a glacier not yet ravaged by climate change dominating the horizon.